+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.
Text: Matthew 18:21-22
Theme: Beyond Human Capacity
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
Humans quickly reach their capacity to forgive. Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally. The person who claims it does is speaking from arrogance or ignorance. “‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”1 Here we truly have the most challenging teaching in all of Holy Scripture. In effect Jesus is saying we are to forgive without limit. Christ’s words here, when viewed from the perspective of common sense, are nearly an absurdity. How is it possible to keep turning the other cheek? How can we, again, and again, and again, pardon those who offend us?
Under purely human power we can’t. The Holy Spirit must have His way. Without the Holy Spirit’s intervention you have absolutely no hope of forgiving your neighbour from the heart. The moment you are pleased with yourself for thinking you have done it successfully is the moment pride is your downfall. Oh, yes, you can take all the right steps, say all the right words, and carry through with all the correct motions but this won’t cleanse the bitterness or resentment from your heart. Forgiveness is a divine act within you.
St. Paul urges his fellow pastors “not to receive God’s grace in vain.”2 How frequently is the grace of God received in vain, that is, in an hollow and superficial way! How superficial is the trust of many in the forgiveness of sins- which is no real trust at all, but a convenient gesture only when it suits? Christ’s story of the unforgiving servant powerfully illustrates the point today. This servant received the pardon of his master in vain. Yes, his debt was cancelled. But he was not freed! He was still bound up in selfishness and unrepentance. That doesn’t mean that his urgent plea to his master wasn’t genuine. It means it wasn’t properly motivated. He desperately wanted to have his debt forgiven. But it was from a purely selfish motive. His account with his earthy master was reconciled but the one with His heavenly Master was not.
What prevents the grace of God being taken for granted? Only the belief that God will judge those who make a mockery of His blessings. Forgiveness is never a commodity we have the power to barter with at will. We have no jurisdiction over God’s offer of pardon. It is a solemn declaration of His favour. God forgives the repentant sinner in Christ and this then governs the dynamics of all our relationships.
This truth operates also at the level of society. Dear friends, think of how much hatred led up to 9-11, the tenth anniversary of which is recognized today. Think of how much unrepentance and unforgiveness has been harbored since! But God is not tethered by human inability. The New York Times reported that during the attacks of September 11, the communication between rescue workers and their commanding officers was not good. Instead of reaching the workers by radio to warn of the imminent collapse of the Trade Center Towers, a messenger had to be sent by foot across the terrible scene dodging flaming debris and falling bodies, to deliver the news in person. He arrived with the information less than one minute before the first tower fell.
Maybe sometimes your life feels a little like September 11th. It is completely out of control with the falling debris of debt, family dysfunction, work pressure, bad health, or all the above! Maybe you’re tied in knots with unresolved conflict or long-held grudges. But your communication with God is not in jeopardy. God didn’t merely send warnings from heaven. Christ came in human flesh, in the fullness of the Godhead. He came wearing our skin and breathing our air. He came confronting our fears and bearing our sin. He came not with a directive and a blueprint for forgiveness. He came as the very price of atonement that makes that forgiveness possible. He wasn’t the facilitator, coach or negotiator; but the scapegoat, the ransom and the sacrifice. He didn’t wrangle agreement or forgiveness from people; He forfeited His own glory for sinners. He was buried under the weight and rubble of human rebellion. But His resurrection gives a new lease on life.
God delivers His people. The Israelites were led on dry ground through the Red Sea out of Egypt. They were led on dry ground across the Jordan into the Promised Land. And He promises to lead the believer through the stormy waters of this life to the inheritance of heaven. Christianity is distinct from all religions or groups that preach about or promote the love of God and the obedience of His followers. Only Christianity teaches that the forgiveness of the sins, freedom from Satan, rescue from hell is accomplished by and secured in and through Jesus Christ. Only the gospel proclaims to us the truly Good News that the fate of humanity does not depend on human ability pacify God’s wrath or impress Him with its achievements.
That’s why we gather here in His name. Why else should people come here? Why do you come here? Is it family custom? Habit? Guilt? Self-interest? Opportunity? Social activity? There are certainly plenty of other things to do on a Sunday morning as many others have found. Consider that God gathers His people where He is present through His means of grace. Here the baptized come as the very consequence of who they are in Christ. We are not only named as His in baptism but we live in His kingdom baptismally. Baptism is both the well of forgiveness and the sacramental Jordan to which we return to drown our unforgiving hearts. In every act of repentance and absolution we are returned to the power and the promise of our baptism. Like a passport that gains one entry across borders, baptism is our access to Christ’s mercy and our heavenly inheritance. So too, your invitation to His holy Table is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
To the unbeliever, participating in these activities or granting forgiveness with no vested self-interest is nonsensical or foolish. The devil is cunning. He wants our thoughts on God and eternity to be appraised by the negative experiences of this life. Darkness, doubt, and despair; trouble and hardship cause even the most mature believer to question the treasures God promises to deliver. Yet faith works just the other way around: the promises of God’s sacred and holy things, knowledge of Christ’s completed crucifixion and resurrection should colour our perspective on this mortal life. We are as the morning mist3.
But let’s be honest, sometimes the tediousness of this life causes us to wonder how we could even spend life in eternity without getting tired or bored. What will drive us? What will motivate us to carry on? How can we envision a heaven in which we don’t become uninterested? Here our intellect has no answers. Faith looks forward in hope and trusts that we will be more than pleasantly surprised. For then, freed and forgiven we will exercise our full capacity to enjoy the unlimited compassion and companionship of the Holy Trinity. Then we will understand the price of forgiveness. Amen.
+ in nomine Jesu +
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
11 September, 2011
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt
1 Matthew 18:21-22
2 2 Corinthians 6:1
3 See James 4:14